The Sureness of Horses, Chapters 3, 4, and 5

3

Diana and I went out for coffee at Peet’s, across the street from the high school, where her daughter had just started. It was a typical early September day, sunny with soft breezes. Most of the people in line for coffee were dressed for work, but a fit young mother wearing a red Stanford jogging suit pushed a high-tech baby buggy while chatting on her cell phone about a real estate open house—the lawn had to be trimmed just right. She seemed such a stereotype that I said to Diana, “All of Palo Alto’s not like her.”

“She’s fine. How’s your back?” Diana asked as we neared the counter.

“It’s pretty much healed,” I lied. It still hurt, but I could mask it.

We chose a table outside, where we could see kids coming and going. “So where does the interest in verse come from?” she asked. “Why do you write poems?”

I shrugged. “The world doesn’t especially want poets. I’m not talking about Plato—you know he banished them—I’m talking about here and now. Perhaps because of the way it’s taught in schools, poetry makes people nervous. I’ve come to grips with the fact it’s just something I do; that it doesn’t make much sense. I’m doing fine in my day job. Poetry isn’t about money, for sure. I always think of those two apocryphal twins, poetry and poverty.”

She shook her head. “Not all poets are poor.”

“True enough. But even big names like Keats and Poe were up against it financially. I went to Keats’s house on the Spanish Steps in Rome. His final letters, written when he was twenty-five, talked about which debtors, on the event of his death, should be paid. He knew there wouldn’t be enough for all of them. Anyway, I decided early on never to depend on poetry for money.”

“But it’s obviously a big part of your life.”

I stirred my coffee. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t like my poetry and wished she’d stop talking about it. At any rate I wanted to get to know her better before sharing it with her. “How are your kids doing?”

“Okay, come clean.” She looked right at me. “Did you bring a poem?”

“As I remember, that proposition involved dinner.”

She paused and raised her eyebrows. “I give up, we’ll talk about our kids.” She sat back.

“Well, actually, I did bring you a poem—just not one of mine. It’s one I just came across in an old magazine. It’s not unlike the one I showed you at my house, but as I said, this poet is still alive, living up in Marin County.” I read from the Atlantic, a poem called “The Love of Aged Horses,” by Jane Hirshfield.

“Because I know tomorrow
his faithful gelding heart will be broken
when the spotted mare is trailered and driven away,
I come today to take him for a gallop on Diaz Ridge.

Returning, he will whinny for his love.
Ancient, spavined,
her white parts red with hill-dust,
her red parts whitened with the same, she never answers.

But today, when I turn him loose at the hill-gate
with the taste of chewed oat on his tongue
and the saddle-sweat rinsed off with water,
I know he will canter, however tired,
whinnying wildly up the ridge’s near side,
and I know he will find her.

He will be filled with the sureness of horses
whose bellies are grain-filled,
whose long-ribbed loneliness
can be scratched into no-longer-lonely.

His long teeth on her withers,
her rough-coated spots will grow damp and wild.
Her long teeth on his withers,
his oiled-teakwood smoothness will grow damp and wild.
Their shadows’ chiasmus will fleck and fill with flies,
the eight marks of their fortune stamp and then cancel the earth.
From ear-flick to tail-switch, they stand in one body.
No luck is as boundless as theirs.”

Diana sighed. “That brings up so many memories for me,” she said. “I enjoyed poetry in high school and one college class, more than I expected, but I don’t read it much anymore. It’s a wonderful poem, but I’m wondering why you saved it for me.”

“Horses,” I said. “I saw it and thought of you.”

“That poem’s about a lot more than horses.” We silently watched a group of fifteen or twenty students come across the street and fan out into different shops.

“It seems that at almost any time of the school day, half of the Paly kids are here at this shopping center,” I said. “In the Midwest, we went to school in the morning and stayed all day.”

“Me too. Your daughter—Amelia? She enjoyed Paly, though. Right?”

“Yes, it was good for her.”

“That poem is also about loneliness and that makes me think of Beth. She’s always gone to schools where everyone knows everybody else. She’s out of her element. She even talked to her grandmother about missing Dallas. I hope she’s not thinking of going back.”

“Is that even a possibility?”

Diana shrugged. “I suppose she could stay with my parents. She’s just unhappy all the time.”

“That bad, huh?

“I see her staring out into space in her unguarded moments. It’s hard to start a new school knowing no one.”

I nodded. “That does sound tough.”

“She was in tears this morning. She spent hours talking to her old friends in Dallas until pretty late last night. The one kid she brought home from Paly, as you call it, seemed druggy, but I could be misreading just because she had tattoos and, according to Beth, hidden piercings. Beth’s so down on herself that I don’t know what to think. She thinks her clothes are wrong, and somebody made fun of her drawl. I never thought of her as having a drawl.” We looked over at the sprawling high school. “She wants me to help her buy new clothes.”

“We never know what’s going on with teenagers. When Amelia was Beth’s age, she looked down at her shoes and asked me what Adidas stood for. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen. I told her I didn’t know. ‘Well I do,’ she said. ‘All Day I Dream About Sex.’”

Diana’s laugh was hearty.

“What in the world could you say to that?” I asked.

She took a sip of coffee. “They test us, they do.”

I stirred my coffee again and looked over at the school, then at Diana. “Sometimes I’m surprised you moved out here. It took courage.”

“I don’t know about courage,” she said. “A lot was circumstance. After Rob and I split up, his firm opened a new branch out here and his father asked Rob to run it. It’s off Sand Hill Road. Buchanan, Snow and Tyler. They have sixty lawyers out here now and hundreds in Dallas and, well, all over the world. I agreed—after a while, for Beth and Robbie’s sake—to come to California too. My friends thought I was crazy, but if I stayed in Dallas the kids would always be on planes. Holidays would have been impossible.” She looked at her hands before she continued. “So last spring Rob bought a large house in Woodside—an estate, I guess you’d call it. He put my horse’s name—Gray Cloud—on a corral there, but I wouldn’t move him. Rob’s not happy, but I’m more comfortable at Jasper Ridge Ranch.”

I hesitated. “I’ll bet he begs you to come back to him.”

“Sometimes, but it’s over.” She raised her eyebrows. “Everything’s supposed to be as close to ‘the way it was’ as possible. That’s the agreement, for the kids’ sake.” She shrugged. “It’s best, it is.” She looked away.

Realizing I was frowning anyway, I said, “I’m disappointed.”

“I shouldn’t even be having coffee.” She looked around the shopping center and back over at the high school. “Well, maybe California isn’t as bad as I thought—just a bit foreign. In Texas everybody knew his or her place. I don’t like to think of myself as sheltered, but maybe I have been. You’re from the Midwest, too, right? What was Palo Alto like when you moved out?”

“People then were saying this was no longer a sleepy college town, which nobody even thinks about now. Calling Harvard ‘the Stanford of the West’ was a big joke then, but I just read that Stanford passed Harvard as the number one business school, so that’s another change.”

More kids crossed the street. A few joined us in Peet’s, but most of them went into places down the way, an early lunch crowd. “I’m sure I’ll adjust. The scenery around here, just the way things look, is beautiful, and I don’t miss the humidity one bit,” Diana said. “Rob is grudgingly impressed, too.”

“Hey, would you like to see where Steve Jobs lived? It’s not marked but people go by it kind of like a shrine now.”

When she agreed, I drove her the eight blocks to the English-cottage style house on Waverley.

“Inconspicuous. Tasteful,” she said.

I pointed out the modest house next door, a two-story white saltbox with a picket fence, not even slightly ostentatious. “That was Steve Young’s when he was the San Francisco Forty-niner quarterback.”

She seemed surprised, almost shocked. “Tony Romo’s house wouldn’t fit on that entire lot, even if you added the lot next door.”

I struggled to remember who he was—right, the Dallas quarterback.

She smiled and said, “The last adjective I thought I’d use for California was quaint. Palo Alto is going to take some getting used to.”

4

The next Friday, over two hundred SnyderSound employees gathered in the lobby of the Stanford Theater, a historic building that’s been restored to its original golden-age-of-movie-houses glory. Ray Snyderman, a balding man in a SnyderSound polo shirt and a sport coat, mingled in the lobby, looking gaunt. Even more than usual, his smile seemed pasted on. Dark circles ringed his eyes.

Jorge joined me as we filed into the theater, looking a bit too casual, I thought. We sat together toward the front. Jorge said, “Think he’s going to announce the holiday party?”

I laughed lightly, as did the woman next to me.

Jorge continued. “Or maybe he’s planning to give everyone in the front row a hundred bucks to get the crowd going.” My second response to Jorge’s gallows humor was more subdued. The woman looked away.

Ray took the stage, which was set with a stool and small desk for a plastic water bottle, but no podium. He thanked everyone for their hard work. “Times are tough. Even with such a robust technology economy, our little industry is troubled. People aren’t going to movies as much. Maybe it’s DVDs, Netflix, the Internet, who knows, but the problem starts with that—they’re not filling the seats.” To illustrate the decline, he described five sales situations (four of them under my watch), and except for an old customer in Portland who was pressing on with a twelve-theater remodel, each one was postponing or canceling orders.

“For the first time in our history,” Ray read from note cards, “we’re going to have to let some people go. After we get back to the office, I’d like you to meet with your manager, so they’ve all reserved the rest of the morning to talk to you about who will be affected.”

After he read from the cards, he looked up. “As many of you know, my dad founded SnyderSound as a storefront radio shop in Redwood City. He never laid anyone off. I never intended to.” His voice broke. “But our business can’t support our current structure.” He paused and took a sip of water. “Management will shrink, too. I wish I had something better to say, but that’s the situation. I wanted to tell you all in person.”

Jorge leaned over to me. “So what do you think—Lydia’s history?”

I laughed, but we both knew Jorge was whistling past the graveyard. His situation was grim. For starters, he had to meet with Lydia, while I’d meet with Sherry, who’d always been friendly to me. I told myself to stop worrying about Jorge and concentrate on myself. Checks to Bard College and to Amelia had almost wiped out what I had in the bank from the refinance; if the paychecks stopped, I’d have to tap my 401K or take money from the second mortgage the bankers had set up.

I left Jorge on his own and headed to Sherry Snyderman’s spacious office. She looked up from her desk and motioned me to sit down. In jeans and a dark green turtleneck with a couple of splatter spots, she looked as much like a soccer mom as a marketing director. After the pleasantries, she said, “I’ll get right down to business, Wade. One of us is out of a job. The good news is it isn’t you. Ray and I decided that I would step down, at least until things pick up.”

I drew a deep breath. “I’m sorry to hear that, Sherry.”

“It’s okay. I was already taking a lot of afternoons off to be with the kids. Ray and I felt I had to either start putting in sixty-hour weeks or . . . leave. You know I love this company.”

“I’ll miss you. We all will.”

“I enjoyed working with you and the customers, and I hope to attend some dinners, but as Ray’s wife—no longer as marketing director. This is the right decision, I’m quite confident.”

“You seem relaxed about it.”

“I’ve had a few weeks to get used to it. It’ll be nice to have more time for the kids. I only had you and Lydia as direct reports, so we’ll just collapse that level of management. Everyone’s into flat organizations now.”

“Lydia and I have been having words.”

“About Jorge, right? I know all about that, more than you imagine.” Sherry took a long breath. I wondered what was coming. “Wade, after working with you for six years, I have no idea about your politics.”

“Are you asking me now?”

“No. I shouldn’t know. Ray and I have gone over this a lot lately. You’re involved in sales. Leave your politics in the parking lot.” She looked away, then back at me. “You’ve never met the Andersons from Las Vegas, have you?”

“Ray’s mentioned them. They’d planned five new theaters, right? I heard they’re postponing.”

Sherry glanced out the window to a well-tended garden, a lush view available from only a few offices. “Yes. We hope to get that business next year.” She looked back to me. “The Andersons are Republicans, through and through. ‘Rock ribbed,’ as people say. Tea party.”

“Jorge can be a little arrogant sometimes.”

“Well, he kind of stepped on his tie in Las Vegas.” She laughed, a little nervously. “I was just using a phrase, but part of the story is that Jorge wore a Jerry Garcia tie that day. The Andersons are not Deadheads.”

I laughed long enough to be polite. “Most customers like Jorge. Surely this is about more than a tie?”

“There was an incident right after Jorge’s demo. He said something about Ronald Reagan being so cheap he emptied out all the mental hospitals and put the patients on the street. It didn’t go over at all. Anderson brings it up every time he speaks to Ray. He chides Ray about keeping a radical on the payroll.”

I took a deep breath. This must be more than just the political divide. “Lydia’s not acting on her own, huh?”

“There are wheels within wheels, Wade, you know that.”

Outside, a gardener brandished a weed-whacker. “He’s the best tech I ever hired. Even Lydia admits he has strong skills. I agree we have to listen to our customers, but not on something like this. Are you sure it’s a good business decision to let him go?”

“He was a good hire at the time. Nobody’s questioning your judgment here. And I like Jorge, too, Wade, but Ray said, and this is a direct quote, ‘Calderon’s history.’ He wanted to make sure I told you.”

“This doesn’t sound like Ray to me. I’d like to talk to him.”

“Not a good idea. Ray’s making a lot of changes quickly, and Calderon is one of them. Stay out of it, for your own sake. Really.”

“We don’t have many Hispanics. Isn’t there a problem firing him?”

“It’ll keep him from being part of the general layoff—an employment lawyer convinced Ray to deal with Jorge more gradually. That’s why Ray read from note cards this morning—one wrong word and you’ve got a lawsuit on your hands. To dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, Ray’s decided to give Jorge a short probation period.”

I made a fist with one hand and pounded it into the other. “Not good. And my new manager will be, let me guess, Lydia?”

“Temporarily, yes. Ray keeps his direct reports to a minimum, so he wants you to report to Lydia until we can afford to replace me with an experienced marketing director.”

I felt my chest heaving. “All this is a hundred percent decided?”

“Ray needs you in sales. You know how to work with people—he says it’s your gift. ‘Let Lydia do the admin work.’ That’s another direct quote.”

“This is hard, Sherry.”

“Don’t spend too much time worrying about Jorge, Wade. It’s for the good of the company.”

I nodded slowly and left. Lydia was waiting outside of Sherri’s office, looking scared. “Next,” I said, and gave her a wink, which she ignored.

At the bottom of the stairs, I spotted Jorge down a long hallway before he saw me. I stepped back into the dark stairwell.

5

Diana and I talked on the phone two or three times a week, but she still kept me at a distance. She was concerned about her daughter and kept asking for details about Amelia’s experience in high school. We scheduled another coffee date, this one at the Palo Alto Café on Middlefield on Saturday morning.

The café was a comfortable neighborhood corner storefront with a coffee roaster the size of a tiny car. Even its sofas and tables seemed to emanate a deep coffee smell. Diana was covered up in a loose shirt over her riding pants. She took a seat at a table while I stood in line. When I joined her, I asked about her kids.

“Beth and Robbie are with their dad until dinner. The little guy’s doing fine, that’s the good news.” She knocked on the rickety oak table between us. “I don’t know about Beth. One minute she claims she’s happy and the next she’s babbling on like she’s eight years old again. And she’s always on the phone to her old friends in Dallas.”

“Outside interests help get kids through. Amelia had her photography, even back then. I imagine Beth rides horses?”

She took a sip of coffee. “Beth might have been the only teenage girl in Texas with no interest in horses. I wonder if it wasn’t to spite me. Believe me, I did everything but take her over jumps myself.” Her voice trailed off as she looked thoughtfully at me. “You seem down.”

“It looks like a good friend of mine at work is about to lose his job. I’ve been told to stand by and do nothing.”

“That must be awful.” She frowned. “Watching something unfold, yet being powerless to change it. That seems familiar.”

I touched her arm. “Really? That doesn’t sound like you.”

“Since I separated from Rob I’ve tried to hold what’s left of the old life together for the kids. Maybe that’s kept me from moving forward. If it weren’t for horses, I don’t know what I’d do.”

I touched her fingers. “I’ve been through a divorce, too. Maybe I understand better than you think.”

“You haven’t ridden horses, have you?”

“I’ve always wanted to.”

“How’s your back?” she asked.

“Healed. It was a muscle pull. All better.” It hadn’t hurt much lately, so what I said was close to the truth.

“I’m headed out to Jasper Ridge Ranch. Would you like to join me?”

Would I? “Sure, I’d love to. I can teach you a shortcut, a way to cut across the Stanford campus. Follow me.” Errands could wait.

Some of the Stanford campus roads were torn up, and even where there wasn’t construction, traffic was bumper-to-bumper. I’d forgotten there was a football game and zigzagged around to avoid traffic. The landscape took on a rural look. As we turned onto Alpine Road, I waved Diana ahead of me. She led me through a gate onto a private farm road.

Harvested corn stalks stood in the fallow field to the left of the road, haphazard, yellow and brown. Like the corn stalks, the gnarled branches of a raspberry patch had been abandoned until spring. Silicon Valley seemed far away. A line of silver and white horse trailers stood at the ready next to a peaceful stream. The wide spaces between the trailers and the empty fields conveyed a luxury of space unusual on the mid-Peninsula. Rail-fenced riding rings and ramshackle stalls suggested a simpler time. In the distance an unblemished green ridge punctuated with spreading oaks made an irregular outline against the sky.

As we passed the new-mown fields, I lowered my window to breathe in that fresh smell. The paved road ended and our two-vehicle caravan slowed to a crawl. A sign said, WHOA—5 MPH PLEASE—SPEED SPOOKS HORSES, and Diana’s SUV almost stopped. We passed a woman who was leading three unsaddled horses back to the stables, then another row of parked horse trailers. Two women rode by, their saddles small, more like you’d see under jockeys at the racetrack than the saddles I’d seen in movies. I wished Diana and I were riding in the same car—there was so much I wanted to ask her. The smiling driver of a station wagon leaving the ranch waved to Diana and then to me, as if we were all in this horsy world together. Belatedly, I waved back.

We parked near one of the buildings. Diana got out, carrots in hand, and went into an open barn with Dutch-doored stables on both sides. I joined her as she approached a giant light gray horse in the first stall. The horse made a friendly sound through its nostrils—a cat-purr on a much louder scale. “Great nicker, Gray Cloud.” She fed him a carrot, then backed off and handed the other to me. “Hold this carrot. I’ll get Artemis from the next barn. You two should know each other.”

She came back with a cinnamon-colored horse, which she tied up near Gray Cloud. “Artemis belongs to my friend Jolene. Her husband works with Rob.” She motioned for me to feed the horse the carrot.

I held onto the thick end. When the horse bit down, exposing her huge teeth, I flinched and dropped my end.

“Relax, Artemis would be mortified if she bit someone. She’s a lady.” Diana picked up the carrot and handed it back to me. “Hold it by the thin end. When she takes it in her teeth, snap it off.”

This time when the horse chomped down, I held onto the stub and wrenched the carrot sideways.

Diana patted the horse’s broad flank. “Now,” she said, turning to me, “Give her what’s left with a flat hand.”

I made my hand so flat that my palm stuck up higher than my fingers. Artemis brought her lips forward at the last minute and dexterously pulled the carrot point into her mouth. Her soft, dry lips barely grazed my hand. The horse’s eyes were larger than my knuckles and seemed intelligent, soulful. The intimacy of looking into the huge animal’s eyes surprised me.

“Here, I’ll show you a little about grooming,” Diana said.

Looking small next to the horse, she grabbed one of Gray Cloud’s back legs, easily flexing it up into her hand. “Keep your eye out for rocks,” she said as she cleaned his hooves with a metal pick. “A pebble can hobble a horse.”

“I wouldn’t allow you to clean her hooves if Artemis weren’t such a gentle lady,” she said as she handed me the pick, nodded toward Artemis, and turned to work on her saddle, which was draped across a fencepost. She sponged it off carefully.

“Is that the saddle I dropped at the airport?”

She nodded. “Nice to have it back.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “Bring your hand along her back tendon.”

At first I faced the same direction as the horse, which, as I tried to mimic Diana, I realized was the wrong way. After a sheepish look toward her, I turned around and touched the back of Artemis’s leg. The horse lifted her leg and held it up as I dug out a clod of dirt.

“See, nothing to it,” Diana rubbed an oily cloth across her saddle.

I cleaned the other hooves as a small pickup drove up and parked by the barn, right next to us. A wiry silver-haired man wearing a weathered leather flight jacket waved from inside.

“Hey, Cliff,” Diana called to him. “This is my friend Wade. Thanks for taking Artemis out yesterday. She needs work.”

Cliff gave a mock salute from the truck. “Good to see you, Diana. I’ve got to scoot. But wait a second, I’ve got something for you—that book I promised.” He reached around in his truck and pulled out two thin spiral-bound books. Photos of Jasper Ridge Ranch and its people showed through the clear covers. He handed one to Diana and one to me. “Nice to meet you, Wade. The ranch ordered 200 of these. I can afford to give two away.”

I thumbed through it quickly, reading a couple of the captions underneath the photos. It drew me in.

As Cliff drove off, Diana returned Artemis to her barn and asked me to help her move a painting from her horse trailer to her car. “This is the last thing I couldn’t trust the movers with. I packed it under the haymow.”

We folded down the seats of her SUV and drove to her trailer, one of those lined up on the way in.

She opened a side door, where a large canvas was covered with a sheet. “It’s not heavy,” she reassured me, “just bulky.”

“May I see the painting?”

She hesitated before she pulled back the sheet. I studied a younger Diana in her dark coat and yellow vest. Looking like a magazine model, she held Gray Cloud’s reins while accepting a silver tray from a man in a red coat.

“I do miss my friends in the hunt out there, that’s for sure.”

“What’s a hunt?”

“Kind of a riding club . . . there’s one here, too . . . I’ve ridden with them . . . you’ve seen it in the movies, haven’t you, where everybody dresses up in tall boots and red and black coats and rides behind the hounds? They gave this to me as my going-away present.”

“A champion!” I said. She looked more carefree in the portrait than she seemed now. The more-open smile, frozen in time, made me realize these last months had rocked her world.

“Not exactly a champion. That was just one event—a steeplechase.” Seeing my baffled expression, she added, “a flat-out race with jumps. A lucky day, that’s all.”

Following Diana as she drove out toward Alpine Road, I felt as if I’d visited a new world, a breath of fresh air in Silicon Valley. Feeding Artemis had been almost inexplicably moving. Those eyes! And Diana, so at home out here. As I was leaving, a teenage girl rode confidently by on a huge brown horse, completely in control. How hard could it be? I could do this, couldn’t I?

I pulled out into traffic and my usual weekend of errands. Next week would be plane trips and sales calls in Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City. I hoped I wouldn’t run into Jorge. The thought of seeing him made me tighten my hands on the steering wheel. I had to learn to relax.

Press here for: Chapters 1 and 2

 

Look for Chapters 6, 7, and 8 on Monday, March 14th

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Warm thanks to Jane Hirshfield and Jim Standish for permission to use their poems, to which they retain all rights.

© Kevin Arnold November, 2015